Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages
Contemporary feminist theory has allowed social and literary critics to observe and reconstruct the past through the lens of the woman, and more specifically, through that of the woman writer. Looking to the premodern eras of antiquity and the Middle Ages, feminist scholars have studied women's roles as artists, leaders, and agents of history. Likewise, they have examined the status of ordinary individuals as the subjects of social and historical change across the millennia. Importantly, most classicists and medievalists who employ the tools of feminist theory in their work have been careful to note that feminism is a decidedly contemporary development, cautioning those who would describe women of the distant past as feminists to be aware of the consequent anachronism. Nevertheless, in their explorations of early literature and past civilizations, these scholars have recognized an emerging consciousness regarding women's issues. While women writers of ancient Greece, Alexandrian Egypt, or feudal Japan can scarcely be labeled feminists by contemporary standards, their unique awareness of themselves and their status in their societies has inspired the endeavor to read and write the history of women in art and literature.
Scholars have unearthed, in the early records of antique civilizations from Bronze Age Greece and Old Kingdom Egypt to ancient China and imperial Rome, suggestions of similar elements within the diversity of women's literature and social roles. Bringing together numerous common themes, such as the conflict between women of influence and the strong patriarchal tendency to marginalize the feminine and codify it symbolically, feminist criticism has offered a new way of looking at the ancient past that seeks to question some of the underlying assumptions of traditional humanist criticism. By examining textual and archeological evidence, critics have endeavored to reassess the society, daily lives, and literary production of women in various cultures of the ancient world. Because women writers of antiquity tended to be individuals with unique talent, their status is generally viewed as highly exceptional. Writers such as the Greek poet Sappho, the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, and the Chinese scholar Pan Chao (Ban Zhao), in some fashion and for some limited period enjoyed favorable social or familial circumstances that assisted them in their vocations. For feminist critics, their rarity and the treatment they received in society—Hypatia, for instance, was murdered in the streets of Alexandria—suggest a prevalent lack of opportunity and respect for creative and intellectual women in antiquity. Such conclusions have led scholars to probe the origins of misogyny in the patriarchal societies these writers represent and to analyze the system of masculine and feminine semiotics upon which the notion of misogyny rests. Beginning with ancient Greece, commentators have evaluated the gendered distinction between private and public spheres, usually described as a symbolic tension between the feminine oikos (household) and masculine polis (city-state or society). Thus, women of the Athenian classical period in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. were expected to attend to their domestic duties without mingling in political affairs. Women's ritual lives were also generally kept separate from those of men, giving rise to the feminine mysteries of ancient Greek religion. Ancient Sparta, in contrast, promoted a more egalitarian view of the sexes, but a woman's primary role remained the bearing of strong future warriors to defend the militaristic city-state. In later times, Roman law placed rather severe restrictions on women, making their legal and social status completely subject to the authority of their fathers and husbands. In a few cases, however, the position of aristocratic women in the ancient world may have been somewhat more favorable. In Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra appear to have been treated with much the same regard as their male counterparts. Notwithstanding these rare instances, the lives of most antique women were generally circumscribed by limits on education, mobility, and vocation precluding virtually all possibilities that might conflict with either domestic or reproductive responsibilities.
Women's relatively limited social roles are also reflected in the arts and literature of the antique period, from Athenian vase painting to Homeric verse, which suggest that the most common position of ancient woman was in the home, occupied with household duties—cooking, weaving, child rearing,—leaving men to handle political issues, which often meant war. Feminist critics have noted that such representations of women in the ancient period derive from the patriarchal assumptions of premodern societies, which were reflected in the symbolic order of the mythic past. Greco-Roman mythology—embodied for the purposes of literary scholarship here in the Homeric epics the Iliad and Odyssey, and in Ovid's Latin Metamorphoses—encapsulates classical perceptions of the feminine, depicting women as powerful goddesses, vengeful queens, cunning witches, and as the objects or victims of male aggression. Such mythic stereotypes inform an array of world literature and are precisely the sorts of ingrained depictions of women that contemporary feminists wish to discover and understand. Likewise, classical drama, perhaps best typified in the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles, presents a somewhat divergent view of women, but one that nevertheless betrays antique assumptions about the nature of woman and man that modern feminists seek to question. Literary depictions of women in the Bible, additionally, contributed to a reductive dichotomy that informed the fundamental gender bias of medieval European society and literature. While self-possessed and heroic female figures such as Esther and Judith are present in the Bible, their stories are usually categorized with the Old Testament Apocrypha. For the most part, perceptions of women in biblical contexts became symbolically aligned with one of two poles—the sinning temptress Eve or the flawless Virgin Mary.
Studying continuity from classical and biblical perceptions of women, feminist scholars interested in the Middle Ages have generally focused on the social roles of women depicted in a wide array of texts, in the visual arts of the period, and in the works of a growing pool of female writers. The medieval epoch in Europe and Asia witnessed major developments in women's writings in large part due to the spread of religious education. Consequently, feminist critics have been drawn to the works of female mystic writers, among them Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Birgitta of Sweden. Their writings generally include revelatory visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary, religious poetry, and similar works of a spiritual nature. Other medieval European writers, such as Marie de France and Heloise (in her well-known correspondence with Pierre Abelard), offered unique contributions to the romantic and epistolary genres, respectively. In the Far East, the ninth-century Chinese poet Yu Xuanji produced some of the finest lyric poetry in her language, while writers such as Murasaki Shikibu, in her innovative novel The Tale of Genji, and Sei Shonagon, in her Pillow Book, recorded the flowering and decadence of the imperial court in Heian Japan around the turn of the eleventh century. Despite such literary accomplishments, the essential social and political status of women in the medieval period changed relatively little from that of the antique, and in some respects may even have declined. For the most part, women continued to be valued only for their domestic skills and reproductive role. Those who protested, and thereby failed to acquiesce to the patriarchal social order, were often harshly treated at all levels of society. Among the aristocracy, the example of the twelfth-century Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine demonstrates this point. Scornfully denounced in popular legend as the embodiment of feminine guile and malevolence for requesting a divorce from her husband, Eleanor was unfairly burdened with maintaining the integrity of her family at all costs and regardless of circumstances. Far worse, from the point of view of most men, was that a woman should be guilty of unchaste behavior—an accusation also leveled against the Queen. Critics have observed that this common theme in medieval society and literature was probably best articulated by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Ironically in the view of modern critics, Chaucer, with his compelling description of the Wife of Bath as a self-possessed, outspoken, and boastfully licentious woman, rendered an epitome of the medieval antifeminist tradition, while at the same time sketching a figure in whom many have seen the first inklings of an incipient feminist consciousness.
Izayoi nikki (travel diary) mid 13th century
Oresteia (dramas) c. 458 B.C.
Lysistrata (drama) c. 411 B.C.
Ecclesiazusae (drama) c. 393 B.C.
Book of Esther (prose) c. 2nd century B.C.
Birgitta of Sweden
Liber celestis revelaciones [Revelations] (prose) c. 1377
Catherine of Siena
Libro della divina dottrina [The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catherine of Siena] (prose) c. 1377-80
Troilus and Criseyde (poetry) c. 1385
Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (poetry) c. 1387
Christine de Pizan
Letter of the God of Love (prose) c. 1399
The Book of the City of Ladies (dialogues) c. 1405
Elene (poetry) c. 8th-9th century
Elizabeth of Hungary
The Revelations of Saint Elizabeth (prose) c. 1231
Medea (drama) c. 431 B.C.
Hadewijch of Antwerp
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SOURCE: Pan Chao. Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, translated by Nancy Lee Swann. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1932.
The following is an excerpt from the poem "Traveling Eastward," the oldest surviving work composed by the first century A.D. Chinese writer Pan Chao (or Ban Zhao).
It is the seventh year of Yung-ch'u;
I follow my son in his journey eastward.
It is an auspicious day in Spring's first moon;
We choose this good hour, and are about to start.
Now I arise to my feet and ascend my carriage.
At eventide we...
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SOURCE: Yu Xuanji. "Joining Somebody's Mourning" and "Three Beautiful Sisters, Orphaned Young." In The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin, pp. 52, 54-56. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998.
The following are translations of two lyrics by the ninth-century Chinese poet Yu Xuanji (844-871), a nun who was executed in the latter years of the Tang Dynasty.
Many of [Yu Xuanji's] poems, to be sure, dwell on absence, longing, and loss, as do lyric poems in any culture and period. But their original handling of theme, their inspired sense of detail, their...
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We used to hear about the south,
its splendid fresh appearance
now it's these eastern neighbors
these sisters three
up in the loft, inspecting their trousseaus
reciting a verse about parrots
sitting by blue-green windows
embroidering phoenix garments
their courtyard filled with colorful petals
like red smoke, billowing unevenly
their cups full of good green wine
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SOURCE: Izumi Shikibu. "The Diary of Izumi Shikibu." In Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Anne Sheply Omori and Kochi Doi, pp. 147-96. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.
The following excerpt from the diary of Izumi Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman of the early eleventh century, describes a clandestine love affair in the imperial court of Heian Japan.
Many months had passed in lamenting the World, more shadowy than a dream. Already the tenth day of the Deutzia month was over. A deeper shade lay under the trees and the grass on the embankment was greener. These changes, unnoticed by any, seemed beautiful to her,...
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SOURCE: Marie de France. "The Nightingale." In The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: Medieval Stories of Men and Women, translated by Patricia Terry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Below is a translated reprint of Marie de France's twelfth-century lai titled "The Nightingale."
The story I shall tell today
Was taken from a Breton lai
Called Laüstic in Brittany,
Which in proper French would be
Rossignol. They'd call the tale
In English lands The Nightingale.
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SOURCE: Heloise. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1974.
In the following excerpts from her letters to Pierre Abelard, the twelfth-century nun Heloise (d. 1163/64) proclaims her love for the man who had seduced and secretly married her—a crime for which he was subsequently castrated.
God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.
For a man's...
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SOURCE: Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catherine of Siena, translated by Algar Thorold. Westminster, Md.: The Newman Bookshop, 1943.
In the following excerpted translation of Catherine of Siena's 1370 Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, originally published in 1907, Catherine describes the sufferings and ecstasies of the soul on its path toward blissful union with God.
How a soul, elevated by desire of the honor of God, and of the salvation of her neighbors, exercising herself in humble prayer, after she had seen the union of the soul, through love, with God, asked of God four requests....
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SOURCE: Birgitta of Sweden. "The Fifth Book of Revelations or Book of Questions" and "The Seventh Book of Questions." In Life and Selected Revelations, edited by Marguerite Tjader Harris, translated by Albert Ryle Kezel, pp. 99-156; 157-218. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
In the following excerpt, originally written in the fourteenth-century, Saint Birgitta of Sweden relates portions of her mystic vision in which Christ and the Virgin Mary appeared before her and spoke. Christ begins on the subject of Birgitta's spiritual conversion, followed by Mary's admonition against priests marrying.
"For your heart was as cold toward my...
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Women In The Ancient World
SOURCE: Cartledge, Paul. “Spartan Wives: Liberation or Licence?” Classical Quarterly 31 n.s., no. 1 (1981): 84-105.
In the following excerpt, Cartledge studies the unique role women held within the militaristic society of ancient Sparta.
[I now begin] tracing the lives of Spartan women in the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. from the cradle to (in some cases) the grave. I use the vague term ‘Spartan women’ advisedly. The available evidence does not permit inferences of a statistical nature about the experience of a ‘typical’ Spartan woman, although in some contexts it will be necessary and possible to distinguish...
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SOURCE: Coole, Diana H. "The Origin of Western Thought and the Birth of Misogyny." In Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism, pp. 10-28. Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1988.
In the following excerpt, Coole probes the sources of Western misogyny in the philosophy, literature, and social structure of classical Greece.
Western political philosophy first flourished in Athens, in the fourth century B.C.; it is the names of Plato and Aristotle that are most often associated with these origins. Their concern with arrangements for a just and stable state involved more than constitutional...
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SOURCE: Sheridan, Jennifer A. "Not at a Loss for Words: The Economic Power of Literate Women in Late Antique Egypt." Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 128 (1998): 189-203.
In the following excerpt, Sheridan discusses female literacy in Roman Egypt during the early centuries of the common era.
A literate woman was a rarity in the Graeco-Roman world. Only among the upper socio-economic classes could one expect to find any women who could read or write.1 Ancient men, themselves mostly illiterate, were clearly unsettled by the idea of a literate woman. It is apparent, in a number of sarcastic...
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SOURCE: Grubbs, Judith Evans. “The Status of Women in Roman Law.” In Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce, and Widow–hood, pp. 16-80. London: Routledge, 2002.
In the following excerpt, Grubbs details the legal status of women in imperial Rome.
Forms of Legal Power: Potestas, Manus and Tutela Impuberum
In ancient Rome, virtually all free Roman women were under one of the following three types of legal authority: patria potestas (“paternal power”), manus (subordination to a husband’s legal power), or tutela (“guardianship”), for those...
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Women In The Medieval World
SOURCE: Hellwarth, Jennifer Wynne. "'I Wyl Wright of Women Prevy Sekenes': Imagining Female Literacy and Textual Communities in Medieval and Early Modern Midwifery Manuals." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 44-64.
In the following excerpt, Hellwarth explores the subject of female literacy in the Middle Ages as a threat to patriarchal order, using late medieval midwifery manuals as her textual focus.
Defining the term 'literacy' in medieval and early modern England is not a simple task; it defies the more modern (and relatively uncomplicated) definition of having the ability to read and write. In medieval terminology,...
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SOURCE: Masson, Sophie. "The Mirror of Honour and Love: A Woman's View of Chivalry." Quadrant 46, no. 11 (November 2002): 56-59.
In the following essay, Masson stresses the importance of chivalry and its attendant virtues to the lives of European women during the Middle Ages.
Chivalry. Isn't that a bloke's thing? Isn't it to do with being a man-at-arms, with strapping on armour and sallying forth into the wildwood on your horse, your lady's token on your arm, to right wrongs and do great deeds? Isn't the only role of the woman in chivalry to be the inspirer, the muse of a paragon of the knightly virtues? Well, yes—and no....
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SOURCE: McNamara, Jo Ann. “Women and Power through the Family Revisited.” In Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, edited by Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, pp. 17-30. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.
In the following excerpt, McNamara investigates the origins and limitations of feminine social and familial power in the medieval period.
The gender system that developed in the second millennium changed the nature of woman’s position as part of a couple and advantaged the male, whether celibate or married, by divorcing men from the couple as a functioning social unit and barring women...
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Women In Classical Art And Literature
SOURCE: Hallett, Judith P. “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-Cultural Feminism.” In Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers, edited by John Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan, pp. 241-62. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.
In the following excerpt, Hallett investigates the position of women in Roman society as reflected through literature, arguing for an incipient “feminism”—which contradicts Roman women’s expected demeanor as subservient and compliant—in Latin love elegies.
Domum servavit. Lanam fecit: “She kept up her household; she made wool.” This was the ideal Roman woman—in the eyes and words...
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SOURCE: Carmody, Denise Lardner. "Genesis 2:23-24." In Biblical Woman: Contemporary Reflections on Scriptural Texts, pp. 9-14. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1988.
In the following essay, Carmody approaches the book of Genesis from an analytical perspective informed by contemporary feminism.
Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The scholarly consensus is that this text occurs in a stratum of the...
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SOURCE: Depla, Annette. “Women in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature.” In Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night, edited by Lé Léonie J. Archer, Susan Fischler, and Maria Wyke, pp. 24-52. London: Macmillan Press, 1994.
In the following excerpt, Depla focuses on three texts of Old Kingdom Wisdom Literature as they relate to women in ancient Egyptian society.
The Old Kingdom (2628-2134 B.C.) was a period of relative prosperity and stability with ‘no obvious challenge to, or major malfunction in, the social order’.1 Instructions from this period are resolutely upper-class, reflecting the mores...
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SOURCE: Blundell, Sue. "Myth: An Introduction." In Women in Ancient Greece, pp. 14-19. London: British Museum Press, 1995.
In the following excerpt, Blundell reviews the principal ways in which women are portrayed in Greek myth: typically as powerful goddesses, royal figures, or destructive monsters, but in many cases as liminal or victimized individuals.
Women in Myth: Goddesses, Royals and Monsters
The heading above refers to the three levels of being which women assume in Greek myth. The divine level is dominated by the figures of the six goddesses (Hera, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter,...
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Women In Medieval Art And Literature
CHRISTA GRÖSSINGER (ESSAY DATE 1997)
SOURCE: Grössinger, Christa. “The History of Misogyny.” In Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, pp. 1-19. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Grössinger examines depictions of women in the visual arts from the fourth to early sixteenth centuries, noting that these portrayals suggest the strong presence of misogynistic thought in the Christian world.
From the beginning, the image of woman was created by man and in the Christian Middle Ages this was the image of Eve. Eve, born from Adam’s rib, was tempted by the devil...
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SOURCE: Saunders, Corinne. “Introduction: The Contemporary and the Contemporaneous.” In Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England, pp. 1-31. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
In the following excerpt, Saunders details medieval perceptions of gender and the female body as they relate to the subject of rape.
Differences between medieval and contemporary perspectives on rape are . . . rooted in the differences between past and present notions of gender and sexuality. The ideas current in the medieval period were themselves fluid, varying between discourses and often reflecting doubts and uncertainties, but the interplay between...
(The entire section is 4468 words.)
SOURCE: Salter, David. “‘Born to Thraldom and Penance’: Wives and Mothers in Middle English Romance.” Essays and Studies (2002): 41-59.
In the following excerpt, Salter discusses misogyny, the depiction of gender, and the marginalization of women in medieval romance.
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mannes governance.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Man of Law’s Tale (286-7)
Romance: A Feminine Genre?
Near the beginning of Book II of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, during the first encounter that we...
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SOURCE: Carter, Susan. "Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies behind Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale?" Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329-45.
In the following excerpt, Carter elucidates the critical feminine subjectivity of Chaucer's "loathly lady," the Wife of Bath, as seen in her tale of King Arthur's court in The Canterbury Tales.
We do not know where Chaucer found the loathly lady motif. Whatever source he encountered, whatever transmutation to it had occurred, he evidently appreciated the more immediate destabilization of gender roles that springs from the loathly lady seen as a...
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Classical And Medieval Women Writers
SOURCE: Swann, Nancy Lee. "The Moralist." In Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, pp. 133-39. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
In the following excerpt, originally published in 1932, Swann examines the moral precepts of Pan Chao's first-century A.D. treatise Lessons for Women, the oldest known work of its kind.
Pan Chao holds a unique place in the history of Chinese philosophy, as the first thinker to formulate a single complete statement of feminine ethics. Despite its brevity, her "Lessons for Women" not only contains an elucidation of the science of the perfecting of womanly character—a system of...
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SOURCE: Radice, Betty. Introduction to The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, pp. 9-55. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974.
In the following excerpt from her introduction to the collected letters of the twelfth-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, Radice outlines the principal events of their forbidden passion.
Nothing at all is known of Heloise's parentage, though much has been conjectured.1 She is thought to have been about seventeen at this time and born in 1100 or 1101. Fulbert's possessiveness has suggested to some that she was really his daughter, but taken with his brutal treatment of...
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SOURCE: Snyder, Jane McIntosh. "Women Philosophers of the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds." In The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome, pp. 99-121. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.
In the following excerpt, Snyder recounts the life of the martyred Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.
Of all the women discussed [here] none—with the possible exception of Sappho—has enjoyed more enduring fame than Hypatia, the philosopher-mathematician who was murdered in Alexandria, Egypt, by a mob of antipagan Christians in 415 A.D. In the nineteenth century the figure of Hypatia...
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SOURCE: Barratt, Alexandra. "The Fourteenth Century and Earlier." In Women's Writing in Middle English, edited by Alexandra Barratt, pp. 27-136. Essex: Long-man, 1992.
In the following excerpt from her collection of medieval women's writing, Barratt briefly summarizes the lives and careers of Marguerita Porete, Elizabeth of Hungary, Birgitta of Sweden, and Julian of Norwich. The critic also provides concise commentary on the major works of these writers that have appeared in Middle English.
Marguerite Porete was a late thirteenth-century béguine from Hainault in Flanders...
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SOURCE: Mumford, Marilyn R. "A Feminist Prolegomenon for the Study of Hildegard of Bingen." In Gender, Culture, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, pp. 44-53. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.
In the following excerpt, Mumford focuses on the contemporary feminist rediscovery of Hildegard of Bingen as the embodiment of the "modern women's spiritual quest."
The past decade has seen a great surge of interest in the works of Hildegard of Bingen, abbess and visionary who lived from 1098 to 1179. One of the first persons to call attention to Hildegard in the...
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SOURCE: Henitiuk, Valerie. "Virgin Territory: Murasaki Shikibu's Ôigimi Resists the Male." Agora: An Online Graduate Journal 1, no. 3 (fall 2002) (accessed 21 October 2003).
In the following excerpt, Henitiuk offers a feminist reading of gendered space and female circumscription in Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots.
The controversial Japanese critic, author, and translator Setouchi Jakuchō has characterized the early 11th-century Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) as a sex education manual designed at least in part to guide Empress Akiko, who was brought to Court as a young child, through the complex maze of male/female relations.1 In this context, the Ôigimi story is highly instructive regarding author Murasaki Shikibu's attitude toward love and sexuality, dealing as it does with the ultimately fatal anorexia of a woman who feels an overpowering need to escape being wedded and bedded. Many episodes found in Japanese literature of the Heian period (8th through 12th century) show how, despite varying degrees of initial reluctance, women are married off. Michitsuna no Haha, author of the biographical Kagerô nikki written in the mid-to late-10th century, accepts Kaneie's suit and, in the Genji monogatari, the young Murasaki, the Akashi Lady, Tamakazura, and countless others do in the end become brides, to name but a few examples. Thus, while Heian heroines are frequently portrayed as offering a posture of resistance to the sexual demands made by men, most do at one time or another yield more or less willingly to such demands. In the darker Uji chapters that form the final third of the Genji, however, a unique female character appears, one who clings to her decision to resist marriage and all that it entails, even unto death. When viewed microscopically, the actions of this ie no onna (literally, "house woman," i.e., one not serving at the imperial court) may well appear paranoid and irrational (or, in Freudian terms, frigid), but macroscopically, taking into account the women's stories that have come before, they are all too justifiable. Through a discussion of the tactics she uses to resist her suitor, and especially of the rationale behind such resistance, this article will argue that Ôigimi's behaviour actually demonstrates a powerfully subversive response to male invasion and attempted appropriation of the self.
In the interests of readability, references to Murasaki Shikibu's text will be drawn primarily from Edward Seidensticker's 1976 English version (1989 Knopf edition), with Japanese terms and phrases introduced only where specifically relevant. While use of a translation rather than the original is necessarily problematic, this strategy has the not inconsiderable benefit of rendering my argument accessible to an audience beyond that versed in the Classical Japanese language.2 Critical works written in both English and Japanese (in the latter case, translations are my own) will, of course, be employed throughout.
Similarly, while examples drawn from elsewhere in Japanese literature will be used to illustrate the various points, I have also chosen to engage with certain textual references more familiar to a Western reader. Given that both Comparative Literature and feminist research are largely interdisciplinary in scope, they expose the falsity of many purportedly common-sensical divisions, revealing that certain artificial barriers may have "obstructed a complete view of women's situations and the social structures that perpetuated gender inequalities" (Hesse-Biber 1) and suggesting that there is an inherent value to bringing disparate elements together, to moving beyond the bounds of national literatures. In a recent report on the status of the discipline, Charles Bernheimer argues convincingly that
comparative literature illuminates the artistic and cultural patterns of sameness and difference which exist both within and between societies, and it
thereby gives us a precious contrastive portrait of societies' values and beliefs, as well as their aesthetic and literary traditions.
New ways of seeing and theorizing the condition of women may well be revealed when the point of departure is located elsewhere than in Europe and North America. Ultimately, by focussing attention on a work of pre-modern Japanese literature, I am making an argument for a decentring move, questioning and destabilizing assumptions as to how our world can be understood and thus potentially leading to a re-thinking of certain feminist projects that have previously been rooted in the West.
Reading a 1000-year-old Japanese text from an early 21st-century Canadian perspective does inevitably run the serious risk of appropriation of voice. As Toril Moi rightly cautions, "it is not an unproblematic project to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done: men have constantly spoken for women, or in the name of women" (67-8). Any analysis of a culture other than one's own needs to remain aware of the danger of daring to speak for the Other, of appropriating and (mis) interpreting what those from utterly different centuries and circumstances have said. While one could assert that every attempt to interpret a cultural artefact means a de facto act of speaking for its creator, whether sympathetically or not, it is a fact that the cross-cultural researcher must always remain especially conscious of the need to respect another's separate identity and experience if s/he is to avoid the pitfalls of misrepresentation and ahistoricism. One has also to be wary of anachronistic terminology such as "medieval feminist" and unjustified exploitation of early texts for supporting an unrelated, foreign perspective. Terms and phrases such as "patriarchal oppression" and "violation of personal space" certainly were not part of the vocabulary (be it Japanese or English) until very recent times indeed. Regardless, the ideas and emotions behind this modern-day wording are hardly new or geographically specific. Despite obvious and significant differences of culture and language, therefore, an examination of similar literary strategies can fruitfully exemplify and shed light on many of the concepts and arguments that have fascinated readers in both past and present, east and west.
Turning now to our main topic, we note that the reader is given a multitude of reasons for the elder Uji princess' rejection of Kaoru's advances. Her most often stated rationale is the desire to honour her father's wishes and protect the family name from ridicule (hitowarae). As Haruo Shirane explains at some length in The Bridge of Dreams, while her high rank requires Ôigimi to marry within an elite group or suffer social opprobrium, the family's status has diminished to the point where she has little hope of marrying well, if at all.3 The aristocratic Kaoru's offer should, therefore, logically be received as a welcome one. As for the purported parental disapproval, Hachi no Miya (the Eighth Prince) clearly had never intended his stricture against marrying to apply in this case; on the contrary, he entertained the fond hope that one of the daughters would indeed wed his trustworthy and admirable pupil. The Prince makes several rather vague comments about the nature of the relationship either Ôigimi or Nakanokimi might eventually enter into with Kaoru, such as "his thoughts have turned to you because I once chanced to hint at a hope that he would watch over you after my death" (Seidensticker 1989: 792). Nonetheless, other statements become much more explicit: "I have done what I could to bring you together. You have years ahead of you and I must leave the rest to you" (805), and especially: "Kaoru was exactly what he hoped a son-in-law might be" (801). Should a proposal be made, therefore, it would scarcely fall into the category of "unsuitable marriages" (807) against which he warns the sisters, and one is hard pressed to misinterpret the father's actual wishes in this matter.
So why does Ôigimi adamantly refuse the suitor? A far more convincing factor behind her decision not to accept this husband is a fear of what intimacy with men will entail. While allowing males to have access to her person would provide the support (ushiromi) Ôigimi needs to make her way in society, accepting such support would place her completely at the mercy of a patriarchy that is more than a little misogynous. Consequently, the resistance she manifests can be viewed as a conscious attempt to retain her autonomy and sense of self. Ironically, in this case, self-preservation is possible only through self-annihilation, and the reader bears witness to Ôigimi's inexorable progress toward death.
While the isolated domestic space of Uji initially offers a stable place of refuge for the princesses, loss of the father-protector exposes them to Kaoru's and Niou's claims to right of access. Despite her initial protestations that she prefers to spend the rest of her life alone with her sister, Nakanokimi soon succumbs to what is considered a normal woman's fate and marries Niou. The elder sister, however, is unable to conceive of wedlock as a desirable or even imaginable option, and repeatedly rejects Kaoru's overtures. Unwilling or unable to accept this quite unparalleled resistance as genuine, the hero nonetheless continues to badger her. Given that external flight is not a viable option, Ôigimi's fear of the Phallus (and the threat it represents) necessitates ever further retreat within the inner sphere. Eventually, her desperate efforts to maintain spatial integrity lead her to reject any trespass of bodily boundaries, including via the act of eating. By starving herself to death, she gradually succeeds in eliminating her own physicality, which has served to attract the unwanted and insistent suitor. To Ôigimi's mind, intimacy with the male can be achieved only by sacrificing autonomy and identity, and is thus a destiny to be avoided at all costs.
Although born in Heian-kyô, Ôigimi and Nakanokimi have spent many years of their lives in the Uji villa, isolated from the capital and the glories of civilization it has to offer. Poetic allusions in The Tale of Genji and elsewhere play repeatedly on the association of the place name Uji with ushi, an adjective meaning gloomy, wearisome, distasteful, or miserable. Indeed, the Eighth Prince moved his family to this location only as a last resort, when their principal residence in the city burned down. He is aware of the hardship such a rusticated life may pose for his young daughters, but has no viable alternative. This environment is described in quite forbidding terms:
Mountain upon mountain separated his [the Prince's] dwelling from the larger world. Rough people of the lower classes, woodcutters and the like, sometimes came by to do chores for him. There were no other callers. The gloom continued day after day, as stubborn and clinging as 'the morning mist on the peaks'.
Not only is the villa remote from the city and human companionship, it is constantly en-shrouded in oppressive mist and surrounded by dense undergrowth:
As he [Kaoru] came into the mountains the mist was so heavy and the underbrush so thick that he could hardly make out the path; and as he pushed his way through thickets the rough wind would throw showers of dew upon him from a turmoil of falling leaves.
The modern reader cannot help but be reminded of Sleeping Beauty, where the hero must fight his way through an almost impenetrable forest to rescue a virginal and insensible heroine. Nevertheless, as we will see below, in this case the acutely sensible beauty considers the wilderness an asylum and, to the consternation of her would-be champion, declines to be delivered from her unwed status in the traditional manner.
As Rachel Brownstein points out, this cult of the chaste maiden is an important and recurring motif in Western literature: "A beautiful virgin walled off from an imperfect world is the central figure in romance" (35). During Japan's Heian period as well, high-born women were very much "walled off," in that they remained jealously guarded behind several layers of both moveable and immoveable barriers. Clearly defined separate spheres for the sexes were fundamental to the elaborate etiquette of the time: "Good manners maintained proper distance, which amounted to upholding the accepted social order. […] Domestic space, divided by screens, curtains, blinds, and so on […] upheld distance and inviolate dignity" (Tyler xix). It is important to note that women in this society normally lived apart from their husbands in property owned by themselves, and thus could, at least in theory, limit intrusions to a significant degree. Direct access by even closely related adult males was not socially acceptable, with the result that the interior is portrayed as an almost exclusively female-gendered space. As a recent Japanese critical study on the architectural setting of the Genji (Yasuhara Morihiko, Genji monogatari: Kûkan dokkai, 2000) points out, female ownership of real estate meant that the woman's ability to decide what went on in her home was widely recognized, including even where a male visitor was allowed to sit.4
Ironically, however, most Heian architecture is revealed to be insubstantial, in that physical, visual, and aural penetration is within the reach of any moderately resourceful voyeur. Indeed, the entire tragedy of Ôigimi begins to unfold with Kaoru catching a hint of music wafting from the sisters' quarters. In this initially accidental, although not unqualifiedly innocent5, aural violation of their privacy, the young man becomes tantalized by the faint strains of the lovely and melancholy duet that Ôigimi and Nakanokimi are playing on koto and biwa. Once he learns that the Prince, whom he has intended to visit, is away on a spiritual retreat (and that the two young women are thus alone and unprotected), the titillating possibility of a chance at kaimami (literally, "peering through a gap in the fence," but more generally this literature's omnipresent peeping tom motif) proves irresistible. With the connivance of a guardsman employed by the princesses, he hides behind a fence and, by the light of the moon shining out from behind a cloud, is able to peer at the two unsuspecting women under their raised blinds. The reader participates in this surreptitious violation of their privacy and Kaoru's resulting arousal, which fact is made clear in countless illustrations (such as the emaki, or picture scrolls) of this and similar scenes. As Joshua Mostow comments:
The female narrator and her illustrator have internalized the masculine gaze and have been colonized by it: the narrator and viewer both merge with Kaoru and become complicit in his voyeurism. Essential to the voyeur's pleasure is the obliviousness of his object: the one he views must be totally absorbed in her own actions and unaware of the presence of a viewer.
Ôigimi and her sister certainly have no reason to suspect the presence of a peeping tom, although they do subsequently blame themselves for being oblivious to Kaoru's distinctive aroma, which had been carried to them on the breeze. After all, they are described here as uchi naru hito (Abe 16: 131)—literally, "the people inside"—thus hardly sitting out in the open, or even on the verandah as two of their ladies-in-waiting do. It is only reasonable for the princesses to assume that they were sheltered from prying eyes there in their private quarters, behind gates and fences, surrounded by serving women and protected by guardsmen outside, as had been the case until this fateful day.
In these chapters, nature and geography appear to offer additional barriers to violation and protect Ôigimi and Nakanokimi from unwanted intrusions. The Uji palace is presented as both a religious and secular sanctuary, the tortuous route from the capital serving to discourage most gallants and thus keeping its occupants safe from harm. Seidensticker rightly comments on the significance of the "gothic mists and waters of Uji" (1983: 203), and one is tempted to see the Uji River as a moat-like additional defense against invaders. Of course, being on the far side of the Eighth Prince's property, it does not pose a physical barrier to access. Nevertheless, the river is repeatedly described in terms that make of it an omnipresent symbol of nature's power, serving as a warning to those from outside but somehow a source of comfort to the female inmates. I have already pointed out that prospective suitors must struggle through almost impassible thickets and underbrush, their passage made more difficult by the ever-present fog. Until Kaoru thoughtlessly discloses their existence to the licentious Niou, the sisters enjoy an almost uterine security in what is in effect a secure, woman-centred world. Let us not forget that this is a society where homes are principally inherited on a matrilineal basis, and thus female characters are intimately associated with their residences.
Given that Ôigimi lost her mother at a tender age, this locale can even, to a certain extent, be taken as a mother figure—an abstraction of the feminine principle. It is worth noting in this connection that, as a would-be priest who, despite pressure from members of his household, declines to remarry following his wife's death, the Eighth Prince is presented as a de-sexed or not-male character. Norma Field underscores the effeminate nature of the princesses' father by positing a homoerotic attraction between Kaoru and his spiritual tutor. Along these lines, Ôigimi's anorexia can be interpreted as a rejection of her own sexuality or femaleness in imitation of her sole parental role model: a final desire to regress to childhood, to undifferentiation, even if this regression means death. Such a reading would then significantly parallel the failed attempt by the Third Princess (another motherless child in the Genji) to cling to the prepubescent space that she views as her one refuge from the menacing Phallus.6 Kaoru's violation would accordingly take on even more ominous overtones as an attack on not only Ôigimi herself, but also Child or Woman in general.
Bearing all these connotations associated with Uji in mind helps make more readily comprehensible Ôigimi's inward-looking obsession and consistent reluctance to leave. The security of her home is not something an intelligent woman throws away lightly, and the princesses have no hope of effective support elsewhere. As Brown-stein points out, heroines of romance, symbolized by a rooted flower fated passively to await the male, must stand guard over their spatial and corporeal boundaries:
Everything that can happen to the Rose while the lover struggles to reach her happens inside. She cannot but be self-preoccupied (which is not to say self-aware); unlike the Lover, she has no Rose outside of herself to draw her out or up. Her life must be passed in staring at the bare insides of garden walls. Eternal vigilance is her lot; if she lets herself be distracted it may be dangerous.
The interior is clearly identified as her predestined space, and allowing any male to have access is a step fraught with danger. This lesson seems to have been instinctively learned by women in the Heian period: "So the last veil had been stripped away, thought Ôigimi. One thing was clear: theirs was a world in which not a single unguarded moment was possible" (835). The fatal conclusion of her story proves just how dangerous distraction can be.
Space is unambiguously presented as a locus of power relationships. While Ôigimi has long been marginal to society at large and the class into which she was born, she conversely enjoys a pivotal position in the domestic haven at Uji. Her role as mistress of the house, companion to her father, and mother-substitute to Nakanokimi has been relatively autonomous. She thus resists Kaoru's intention to displace her from her house to his, where she would clearly become more subject to another's whims. This situation is strikingly analogous to that of the Akashi Lady from earlier in The Tale of Genji, who has benefited from a childhood and youth where the world revolved around herself, and who sees no personal advantage—indeed considerable disadvantage—in being transported to Genji's household. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote:
The life of the female savage is freedom itself … compared with the increasing constriction of custom closing in upon the woman, as civilization advances, like the iron torture chamber of romance.
To these intellectually astute women who have come of age in the hinterlands of Uji or Akashi, which offer (relatively speaking) a certain amount of personal freedom, Heian-kyô and the patriarchal society there enshrined do symbolize such an iron chamber waiting to close in on them. In their view, far from the pinnacle of joy and security that it represents to the waiting women and others in their entourage, the capital is a site of dependence and potential humiliation. Ôigimi's preference for the independence she has known, in spite of its obscure and peripheral nature, is thus understandable and leads her to resist being brought to a central position (i.e., to an estate within the city limits) that will inevitably be a weaker one. What makes the situation of this Uji princess even more untenable than most is the fact that, in his concern for the well-being of his daughters, the Eighth Prince has to a certain degree dispossessed her by making both sisters de facto wards of another man. (This other man is, of course, Kaoru, the stubbornly persistent suitor.) Although she does inherit the property that has been her home for many years and thus gains increased nominal autonomy, Ôigimi finds herself even more reliant on Kaoru's good will than ever before as, in his role as protector sanctioned by her late father, he presses her with unwelcome attentions that she now finds extremely awkward and risky to rebuff.
Ôigimi's dilemma is a metaphor for woman's ambiguous position within and without the dominant male culture of Heian Japan and elsewhere, where the appropriation of space signifies appropriation of the body. A paralyzing fear of, or at least pronounced distaste for, intimacy with men offers little mystery in a society where women can achieve sexual union only at the cost of totally sacrificing independence and self. It has been said that, "conceiving of herself as the creature of her relationships with others, and bound by her woman's fate to a life of relationships, the conscious heroine longs for solitude and separateness" (Brownstein 288-9).…
- "Akiko wa jûni-sai de kôkyû ni hairaretan dakedo, nenne de, ren'ai mo sekusu mo wakaranai. O-ningyô mitaina hito deshô. Tsumari, 'Genji' wa isshu no seikyôiku hon datta no yo." ("Akiko was twelve years old when she entered the Court, and knew nothing of either love or sex. She was like a little doll. In short, 'Genji' was a sort of sex education manual.") Tawara Machi. "Ima mo mukashi mo ai koso jinsei no gendôryoku." Interview with Setouchi Jakuchô. (Tokyo: Shûkan Asahi, August 21-8, 1998) 45.
- Readers wishing to delve into the question of translation accuracy with regard to women's writing in Heian Japan may find my article entitled "Translating Woman: Reading the Female through the Male" to be of interest.
- Haruo Shirane, The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of 'The Tale of Genji' (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). See especially pp. 140-41. As a frequently cited footnote in Abe et al. (15:23 n. 25) makes clear, the vast majority (85%) of princesses of the blood remained single during the first two centuries of the Heian period, primarily owing to the scarcity of appropriately ranked marriage partners.
- Further, the exact location within the home to which she accords him access is of great import, implying minute differentiations of degrees of intimacy. As Yasuhara (201) puts it, Kono onna no kûkan ni oite wa onna ga otoko no suwaru ichi o kimeta. Misu de au ka, hisashi de au ka no sa wa ôkii. ("In this woman's space, it was the woman who decided the place where a man would sit. There was a vast difference in whether she met him at the bamboo blind or closer to the eaves.")
- In having Kaoru travel to Uji through darkness and rain, dressed inconspicuously and accompanied by a reduced number of retainers, the narrator accords him all the trappings of a lover on his way to a secret tryst. Indeed, our hero, unfamiliar with such intrigues, seems to derive a certain level of sexual exhilaration from the escapade, even before the women appear on the scene: "This was not the sort of journey he was accustomed to. It was sobering and at the same time exciting" (783).
- For an in-depth discussion of this heroine's use of temporal suspension, see my forthcoming article entitled "Seeking Refuge in Prepubescent Space: The Strategy of Resistance Employed by The Tale of Genji's Third Princess."
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Semiotic study of the Greek goddess of the hearth, Hestia, which suggests she may represent an "omphalos" (navel) symbol that stands in opposition to the phallus.
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Compares literary interpretations of two female philosophers, one modern, Simone de Beauvoir, and the other classical,...
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